From Tractors Comes Farms…

The Lempert Report
April 05, 2016

The key to trade with Cuba might just be a tractor

On March 20th President Obama made his way to Havana to open relations and help both countries prosper. Two Americans, both former IBM execs, Horace Clemmons of Paint Rock, Ala., and Saul Berenthal of Raleigh, N.C., received approval by the Obama administration to build the first U.S. factory in Cuba since the 1960 embargo. Their plan is to to make tractors for small farms under the brand name Oggun. That's the name of a deity in the Santeria religion, the god of metal.

Their new tractor business ties together the two men's life experience.  Horace came over to the U.S. after the Cuban revolution, he says proudly that he "learned to be a capitalist and made the American dream."Berenthal is Cuban-born, the son of Jews who fled Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. He and his family left Cuba for the United States in 1960, when he was 16. When Saul first heard the news about the diplomatic opening to Cuba, announced in December 2014, he recalls, "Being Cuban, I said, 'This is the path to get Cuba into the 21st century.' "

And when the U.S. loosened some trade restrictions on agriculture, Berenthal and Clemmons saw their opportunity. Clemmons grew up in rural Alabama and knows his way around a family farm.  The partners have seen farmers in Cuba struggling to till their land with shovels and hoes, or livestock. They know that Cuba needs food; the country has to import more than 70 percent of what it consumes. They figure as tourism expands in Cuba, the demand for locally produced food will only be greater. With parts manufactured in Alabama, they will assemble the Oggun tractor at the port of Mariel, in the new special development zone there.

The Oggun is small, like a jacked-up go-kart, with the engine mounted behind. If it looks old-school, that's because it is. It's based on the old Allis-Chalmers Model Gtractor, which was revolutionary when it was introduced, back in the 1940s. It was discontinued in 1955 when many U.S. farms outgrew its size. There are skeptics who wonder about bringing a 60 year old design to Cuba, but they insist that  they've updated the engineering, putting new technology in that old frame. The tractor will be easy to assemble and, with an open source manufacturing model, will be easy to fix and maintain. By putting their Oggun design in the public domain, they say their solution is perfect for the nation who is known for repairing and driving cars from the 1950s. By the way, Horace is 71 and Saul 72.